The state health department earlier this month stopped analyzing HIV tests for many of the state's medium and small counties and also stopped providing rapid or oral test kits, which is creating a new burden for cash-strapped health departments and creating some uncertainty whether they can continue testing for the disease in some rural locations around Kansas.
Compounding the problem, some local department heads said, was the short notice they received that the services previously provided free to them by the state were being terminated.
Notification letters from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment went out in late November, they said, giving them only about five weeks, including the holidays, to make alternate arrangements in time for Jan. 1, when the new policy kicked in.
"It's another nail," said Julia Hulsey, director of the Reno County Health Department in Hutchinson.
Kansas routinely ranks low nationally in its support for public health agencies.
New cost for patients
Hulsey said her department was able to contract with a laboratory in Wichita that agreed to provide the testing supplies for free (though it will charge for the lab work) and so her agency plans to continue the tests but will start charging patients for them probably by Feb. 1, once she has a clear picture of her agency's new, added costs.
"I don't have that whole cost figured out yet," Hulsey said, "but, of course, it will be more than KDHE because they didn't charge for it."
She said her goal would be to price the tests as low as possible to not discourage people from getting them. She said the department historically has performed about 220 tests a year.
Dan Partridge, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said Lawrence Memorial Hospital agreed to help with the testing after KDHE withdrew the services, so it will only cost his agency about $9,000 a year to continue the testing instead of about $18,000. But he said the new obligation signals another state retreat from support for local health departments.
Urged to continue
State officials, in their November letter, urged the local departments to try to continue the services on their own.
KDHE "would like to encourage your agency to continue to provide HIV testing to clients requesting an HIV test, especially those reporting high-risk behaviors," the letter stated. "However, any test conducted at your agency beginning January 1, 2013, and continuing thereafter will need to be paid for by either your agency or by the client through insurance, public assistance programs, or out-of-pocket."
But a spokesperson for the state's local health departments said it would be difficult or impossible for some smaller departments to pay for the tests on their own.
"I suspect there will be some health departments in some areas that won't be able to find a workaround like Douglas County," said Michelle Ponce, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments. "I couldn't give you a firm number, but in some of those rural areas they may not have another option for testing."
The state’s letter also included some cost-comparison information to help the local departments shop for testing materials, lab work and other necessities of the program.
Hulsey in Reno County said she ended up considering four or five outside laboratories between the time she got the letter and Jan. 1 when the state assistance stopped.
"We got very short notice on this," she said. "And then having to go negotiate for ourselves...you never know if you're getting the best price."
State officials said they had to reduce the services because of cutbacks in a federal testing program administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has been reconfigured to focus on areas where the incidence of HIV/AIDS is greatest.
In the past, according to state officials, 40 local health departments received the free services. That number has been trimmed to 10, according to Ralph Wilmoth, director of the HIV/AIDS program at KDHE. The 10 county health departments that will continue to get the aid include Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Shawnee, the state’s most heavily populated, and also Crawford, Pratt, Riley, Saline, Thomas and Trego counties.
The state also will provide the testing services to various organizations other than health departments in about a dozen counties. For example, in Douglas County the services will be continued for the Douglas County Aids Project, a non-profit group. In Reno County, the services will continue for the state prison in Hutchinson.
Wilmoth said the CDC made the program changes in anticipation of the full-scale implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which begins Jan. 1, 2014. Millions of Americans are expected to become newly eligible for Medicaid then and HIV testing is among the health services covered by Medicaid.
Linked to Medicaid expansion
But when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the health reform law, it concluded that each state had the option to not expand its Medicaid eligibility and Gov. Sam Brownback nor the Kansas Legislature have yet determined whether Kansas will broaden access to its program, which is known as KanCare.